The 2021 Nimdzi 100: The Ranking of Top 100 Largest Language Service Providers

1 March 2021
Nimdzi 100 top lsps

Report by Sarah Hickey and Belén Agulló García.

Table of contents

  1. The Nimdzi 100
  2. Close, but no cigar
  3. Watchlist
  4. Changelog
    1. New arrivals on the Nimdzi 100
    2. Rebranded
    3. Acquired and removed from the ranking
  5. How we create the Nimdzi 100
  6. State of the language industry
  7. Market size and growth
    1. Five-year growth projection
    2. Top 100 companies concentrate 15% of industry revenue
    3. A closer look at the top 100
      1. Growth by company size
      2. The most productive companies in the industry
      3. The 10 fastest-growing LSPs in our ranking
      4. Women-run LSPs
    4. Top services and verticals in the market
    5. Growth by geographical distribution
  8. M&A activity in 2020: The industry reaches maturity and creates new market leaders
    1. New leaders in the language industry
    2. Beyond M&A: The first spin-off
    3. The drivers behind the M&A wave
  9. How buyers view the LSP landscape
  10. Key trends
    1. The LSP is dead. Long live the LSP!
      1. Moving away from transactional work
      2. Technology as the biggest ally
      3. AI-enhanced language portals for transactional work
      4. Where do smaller LSPs stand?
    2. Data for AI services keeps growing
    3. Life goes on(line): E-commerce and e-learning are booming
      1. E-commerce: Record growth
      2. E-learning: Time to upskill
  11. Spotlight on industry segments
    1. Interpreting: Turning a crisis into an opportunity
      1. Remote simultaneous interpreting is booming
      2. Telemedicine as an area for growth
      3. Adaptation and co-existence
    2. Multimedia localization — growing, but not so much
    3. Technology trends
      1. All about that data
      2. TMS: More partnerships
  12. Geographies
    1. Where the largest LSPs are
    2. Where the clients are
    3. India: A booming digital economy, new language regulations, and the battle for talent
    4. Africa: Many languages but few language services
  13. The effect of COVID-19 on the language services industry
    1. A few stats about the impact of the pandemic
    2. Impact on verticals and services
    3. COVID-19: The big accelerator
    4. Technology as the big differentiator
    5. Increased profitability
    6. Work from home is here to stay
    7. Survival strategies and growth opportunities
      1. Customer focus
      2. Investment in marketing and sales
      3. Reshuffling and reinvesting
  14. Where do we go from here?

Ranking of the top 100 LSPs

Chances are the information you came here for is the Nimdzi 100 Ranking, which is presented in the table below. The ranking is based on revenue and lists the top 100 largest language service providers (LSPs) worldwide.

Now, let’s just jump right in, shall we?

Our ranking is a live document and therefore subject to change.

*Pactera EDGE spun off from Pactera Technology in 2019 and has since been its own separate company. We list both companies in this year’s ranking, as both provide language services. The main distinction between the two businesses is their geographic footprint. Pactera EDGE has its headquarters in the United States and the majority of its clients are located in the US and Europe. Pactera Technology remains headquartered in China. 

Notes:

  • (fy) fiscal year, figures for the latest financial year (verified with financial reports)
  • (v) verified, data provided by companies
  • (e) estimated revenue, based on extensive industry research
  • (c) calculation based on public financial records
  • Some companies appear to have the same revenue due to currency rounding. However, the ranking is accurate considering the second decimal. 

Close, but no cigar

The following companies would have made the ranking in previous editions, but due to the growth of other players as well as new arrivals on the Nimdzi 100, they did not make the cut this year. However, they deserve an honorary mention.

Watchlist

Language service providers without a definitive revenue estimate 

The Watchlist consists of companies that should be in the ranking but are not listed because they do not disclose, publish, or otherwise reveal their revenue. Furthermore, some organizations are units inside larger corporate groups where a small part of revenue comes from language services, and annual reports do not allow researchers to segment out the translation and interpreting revenue. We provide visibility to such companies on the Watchlist to highlight their impact on the industry. 

The reason it is important for us to track these companies is because even though they might not compete for clients, they compete for talent and resources. They also represent opportunities for technology providers and investors.

The companies are listed in alphabetical order.

Changelog

A lot has changed on the ranking since last year. Here is a brief overview to help you better navigate the ranking.

New arrivals on the Nimdzi 100

  • Pixelogic Media — USD 150.0 million (e). Pixelogic Media is a US-based company, which specializes in media localization and other media services. We estimated their size based on business news publications. 
  • Pactera Technology — USD 140.6 million. This year, Pactera Technology, the industry veteran based in China, is back on the Nimdzi 100 ranking after Pactera EDGE spun off from the company in 2019. Pactera Technology specializes in translations for the technology and IT sector.
  • Verztec — USD 43.5 million. Verztec is a consulting and translation company based in Singapore. Verztec offers many language services, including interpreting, as well as translation for (among others) the life sciences and legal sectors. The company was on our Watchlist in previous editions and officially disclosed their figures to us this year.
  • BIG Language Solutions — USD 41.0 million. BIG Language Solutions is a relatively new business founded in 2019, but has already been active in the M&A space. The US-based company acquired ProTranslating and ISI Language Solutions — two companies that have been on the Nimdzi 100 in previous years. BIG's group of companies are providing language services in both regulated and non-regulated industries.
  • t’works — USD 17.4 million. t’works is a translation and website localization company based in Germany. The company operates in many verticals but is particularly focused on the fields of technology, healthcare, and legal.
  • TOIN Corporation — USD 15.0 million. TOIN Corporation is a translation and localization company based in Japan. The company has clients in many industries and is particularly big in the areas of technology and consumer goods. The company was on our Watchlist in previous years and officially disclosed their figures to us this year.
  • BLEND — USD 14.0 million. BLEND is a translation platform, with headquarters in Israel. The company was on our Watchlist in previous years when they still operated under the name One Hour Translation. This year, they disclosed their figures to us. 
  • Fidel Technologies — USD 10.0 million. Fidel Technologies is an LSP based in Japan. The company’s main focus is on translations in the technology and IT sector. Fidel Technologies would have made it into the top 100 in previous editions but due to the growth of other players as well as new arrivals on the Nimdzi 100, they didn’t make the cut this year. We’ve added them to our “Close, but no cigar” list this year. 

Rebranded

  • TVcN is the largest interpreting provider in the Netherlands and was already on our ranking in 2020. The company has now rebranded as Global Talk.
  • Language Connect, based in the United Kingdom, has been present on our rankings for years. In 2021, the company rebranded as THG Fluently.
  • One Hour Translation was on our Watchlist of market influencers in previous editions. This year the company can be found on the ranking, rebranded as BLEND

Acquired and removed from the ranking

  • Amplexor is an industry veteran and ranked 12 in the 2020 version of the Nimdzi 100, with a verified revenue of USD 180.1 million. The company joined Acolad Group in 2020 and is therefore no longer listed individually in our ranking.
  • ProTranslating held position number 57 in the 2020 ranking, with a confirmed revenue of USD 25.0 million. This year, the company has disappeared from our ranking as it was acquired by BIG Language Solutions.
  • ISI Language Solutions held position number 89 in the 2020 ranking, with a confirmed revenue of USD 14.6 million. This year, the company has disappeared from our ranking as it was bought by BIG Language Solutions.
  • Stratus Video was ranked in position 16 in the 2020 edition of the Nimdzi 100, with a verified revenue of USD 110.9 million. In 2020, the company was acquired by AMN Healthcare, a healthcare staffing company from outside the language industry. Listed as AMN Language Services, we have moved Stratus Video to our Watchlist this year, to highlight their continued impact on the industry.

How we create the Nimdzi 100 ranking

During the course of this market analysis, Nimdzi uncovered prominent LSPs that have previously been invisible in market reports because they do not participate in surveys and are reluctant to disclose their revenue. Nimdzi has employed an investigative approach and invested hundreds of hours into intense research, data collection, and analysis in order to present data that have previously been unavailable.

We are very proud to offer broad access to our data. This ranking is offered to all who are interested. No paywall. No strings attached. Localization buyers, investors, savvy job seekers, and analysts are welcome to use this document, just don’t forget to reference Nimdzi Insights, LLC, as the source. Interested parties are free to reach out to us directly should they have any questions.

Below is a summary of the methodology used for the Nimdzi 100 ranking.

  1. We concentrated on identifying LSPs with USD 10 million or more in revenue, with the assistance of in-country experts. In most countries, there are only a few providers of this size, and it is impossible for them to hide from local competitors because they hire staff, take part in requests for proposals, and employ a large number of translators. Once we identified the relevant LSPs, we researched information that could help us make more accurate estimates of their size and talked to the management directly to verify our findings.
  2. We’re listing full company revenue, not just language services revenue. It is impossible to separate these in external sources of information, such as annual reports, press releases, and stock listings, which provide the foundation for our work.
  3. We use data from the latest fiscal year for each company. This means the numbers for some companies will not reflect 2020 calendar year revenues. 
  4. Our definition of language services includes: translation, localization, transcreation, multilingual desktop publishing (DTP), language quality assurance, linguistic testing, multilingual copywriting, multilingual technical writing, language project management, interpreting, video remote interpreting, telephone interpreting, linguist verification and staffing, media localization, versioning, adaptation, subtitling, voiceover, dubbing, machine translation (MT), training machine translation engines, cultural consulting, data services, and related services.
  5. Growth rates are calculated in USD. 
  6. We use average annual currency conversion rates to US dollars, published by the Internal Revenue Service of the United States for each day of trading in 2020.

State of the language industry

Rumors of the industry’s demise are greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain might have put it. Because while 2020 might be the year the world wants to forget, it might just be the year the language industry wants to remember. 

We have long said that our industry is impervious to crises. This is because we don’t create anything from scratch, we transform. Already in the 2020 edition of the Nimdzi 100, we alerted readers to the fact that, if COVID-19 became a pandemic, the translation industry would be impacted in the same proportion as the industries that it serves — both negatively and positively. Our data show that, in many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has acted as an accelerator. Businesses that already had remote solutions in place grew, whereas those who ran entirely onsite-focused operations saw an accelerated downturn. LSPs with large clients in the travel and hospitality sector were hit hard, just as LSPs who predominantly offered onsite interpreting, whereas businesses with a diverse client base were able to navigate fluctuations in demand much better. Remote interpreting providers thrived — especially in the healthcare sector. 

Early predictions and industry surveys throughout the year painted a gloomy picture and it needs to be acknowledged that some LSPs had significant losses, while others merely stayed at the level of their 2019 revenue, as a result of the disruption caused by the pandemic. LSPs who were negatively impacted were mostly in the small-to-medium-sized range and/or focused on a niche that was hit hard, such as the retail industry or onsite interpreting.

However, the language industry as a whole has once again proven to be resilient. The majority of players interviewed for the Nimdzi 100 reported a strong finish to the year and some even experienced record growth in 2020. These reports are backed up by data collected via our survey and financial records of publicly traded companies which show that, even in 2020, the language services industry as a whole once again grew. These findings are no surprise if we consider that, in 2020 and beyond, language services have played a key role in saving lives and advancing knowledge and communication across the globe. 

While some of what we’re seeing in the data might just have been one-time benefits, such as increased profitability due to reduced costs for travel and office space, we can expect that the pandemic will have a lasting impact on how all of us, including our customers, do business.

Throughout this report, we reference different data points that were used for our analysis. In some cases, we report directly about data relating to the top 100 largest LSPs. In other cases, our calculations are based on data collected via our survey, which received 173 valid responses from LSPs of all sizes (including about two-thirds of the top 100 from our ranking). We also refer back to data collected via interviews we conducted with more than 30 of the largest players in the language industry. We highlight the sources of our data where appropriate. 

Market size and growth

Our data show that annual growth among the 100 largest LSPs has slowed significantly, increasing 6.8% between 2019 and 2020 compared to an increase of 11.5% in the previous period. However, the combined revenue of companies comprising the top 10 positions in 2020 rose 9.0% compared to the combined revenues of the top 10 listed in 2019. The top 50 positions grew by 6.4% and the remaining positions 51 to 100 grew by 10.0%, as compared to last year’s ranking. 

Growth by ranking segment between 2019 and 2020

Despite ongoing consolidation at the top, the industry as a whole continues to grow, producing larger LSPs every year. This trend holds true even in the lowest positions within our ranking, with the 100th largest LSP confirming revenues of USD 12.0 million this year as compared with USD 11.6 million and USD 10.3 million for the 100th ranked LSPs in 2019 and 2018, respectively.

In order to get some perspective on growth and consolidation in the LSP space, we decided to take a look at the numbers for the top company in the industry in the year 2000. The largest LSP in the world in 2000 was then publicly traded Berlitz GLOBALNET (now part of Lionbridge), with revenues of USD 103.9 million. If we look at the pro-forma consolidated revenues of RWS and SDL, the largest LSP in 2020 reached USD 936.7 million. Looking only at the top company in the ranking, the variation would be equivalent to a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.6% or a nominal growth of 901.5% over 20 years.

The number one company in 2000 and 2020

Five-year growth projection

Our estimate is that the language services industry reached USD 55 billion in 2020 and should grow to USD 58.3 billion in 2021. Considering a CAGR of 6.0%, the industry would be valued at USD 73.6 billion by 2025.

When calculating the addressable market for their services, commercial providers should limit the opportunity to 60% of the total figure. Firstly, not everything is outsourced, as a significant portion of the overall volume is performed by in-house teams on the buyer side. For example, the European Union employs about 5,000 staff translators and interpreters. Secondly, the market size calculation includes revenues for both translation companies and their suppliers, i.e. a part of the revenue is counted twice.

Top 100 companies concentrate 15% of industry revenue

Although consolidation continues, the language services industry remains fragmented. The top 100 companies in our ranking accounted for just 15.0% of the overall language industry in 2020 — a rise of a mere 0.5% from 2019. Adding in the Watchlist and our “Close, but no cigar” honorary ranking, all 153 large LSPs tracked by Nimdzi accounted for only 21.4% of the language industry in 2020.

In absolute figures, the companies tracked by Nimdzi earned over USD 11.7 billion in their latest fiscal years. The top 10 companies were responsible for more than a third of that total.

  • USD 4.3 billion in the top 10
  • USD 3.9 billion in the next 90
  • USD 3.5 billion approximately on the Watchlist (including the “Close, but no cigar” honorary ranking for this purpose) 

Despite ongoing consolidation at the top, the industry is still predominantly made up of companies smaller than USD 10 million.

A closer look at the top 100

In this year’s ranking, 65 of the top 100 largest LSPs in the world reported various degrees of growth. 33 companies had negative growth, and revenues remained flat for two companies in our ranking. 

The average growth rate for the top 100 was 7.9% in 2020. The top 20 grew at an average of 8.5% — only 0.6% more than the top 100 average. The next in line, LSPs with revenues between USD 50 and 96.1 million, grew at 10.7%. The remaining LSPs in the top 100, with revenues between USD 12 and 50 million, grew at 7.1% in 2020. 

Average growth of the top 100 in 2019 and 2020, by revenue bracket

Average growth of the top 100 in 2019 and 2020, by revenue bracket

If we look at last year’s figures as a matter of comparison, we can see a downturn in growth among the top 100. While the average growth for all top 100 only dropped 5.0%, companies in the mid-revenue section were hit much harder. Although the mid-revenue section remains the fastest-growing segment in the ranking, growth average is down by more than half of what it was in 2019 for the same segment. The top 20 are still growing at a slower pace than the mid-revenue section, but their growth only fell off 1.6% in comparison to the previous year. 

What this indicates is that the top players were better positioned to respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic, which is a trend that also stood out in the interviews conducted for this analysis and in our wider industry research. The larger players in the industry typically operate in multiple verticals, offer a wide variety of language services, and are not reliant on a small number of key clients. This makes them more resilient in times of crisis, as they are better poised to compensate when one segment of their business has been negatively affected. The smaller the companies, the more they tend to specialize in certain niches within the industry. This can be an asset at times but also means a lack of safety net when said niche is among those hit hardest. This being said, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the top players to grow organically, which is why their growth is generally slower. 

Growth by company size

When calculating the average growth by company size, it is, again, those in the middle that come out on top. In 2020, LSPs with 100 to 249 employees grew the fastest, with an average growth rate of 13.1%. In 2019, it was also the middle segment that saw the fastest growth, even though companies with 50 to 99 employees took the lead. 

In 2020, LSPs with 50 to 99 employees were next in line, with an average growth of 8.9%. The slowest positive growth rate was reported for companies with 500 to 999 employees, and some of the smallest LSPs in our ranking, with 25 to 49 professionals on staff, even had negative growth. It is reasonable to assume that this negative growth among the smallest players was, at least partially, a result of the pandemic. While some larger players also struggled, smaller ones tend to be more greatly impacted by market fluctuations.

The most productive companies in the industry

Looking at the productivity of the top 100 LSPs, the average revenue per employee in 2020 was about USD 102 thousand. In 2019, the average was USD 128 thousand, so this is a decrease in productivity of about 20%. The average productivity for the top 20 was USD 142 thousand in 2020. 

Considering company size, seven out of the top ten most productive companies in 2020 employ between 25 and 99 professionals. Two companies in this ranking have between 100 and 249 full-time employees and only one company has more than 1000 people on staff.

The 10 fastest-growing LSPs in our ranking

Below is a list of the ten fastest-growing LSPs in 2020. It is worth noting that the biggest growth in the industry was due to M&A activity this year rather than organic growth. The top three fastest-growing LSPs listed below all completed major acquisitions in 2020.

Women-run LSPs

This year, 20% of the largest LSPs in our ranking have female CEOs. Half of these are located in North America, seven in Europe, two in Australia, and one in Asia (or two, as one company reports dual headquarters in the US and China). The top five women-run LSPs are all located in North America.

The percentage of women-run companies in the language industry is above average compared with other industries and the Fortune 500 (2.6% female CEOs). However, the 20 women-run companies in our ranking only make up 8.1% of the total revenue of the top 100, and there are no female CEOs among the top 10 largest companies in the industry. 

While these are interesting data points, the topic needs to be explored on a deeper level to truly understand what the data mean for the industry. Stay tuned as Nimdzi publishes a more in-depth report about women and diversity and the drivers behind the figures. 

Top services and verticals in the market

In this year’s survey, we asked companies to select the services and verticals they operate in. 

The results show that the services most commonly provided by LSPs are translation and localization (97.5%), machine translation and post-editing (71.5%), subtitling (68.4%), and desktop publishing and graphic design (61.4%). Copywriting, transcreation, and content creation, as well as transcription are in fifth place (58.2% each). Onsite interpreting and dubbing, voiceovers and audio services share the sixth place (54.4% each), and an additional 46.2% also selected remote interpreting in addition to onsite interpreting.

Considering the split by verticals, our survey results show that technology, IT & software (72.0%), life sciences (67.7%), and financial and legal (66.5%) are the three most prevalent segments in terms of industry participation. Marketing (63.4%) and education & e-learning (62.7%) are the fourth and fifth most common industry segments, and manufacturing is in sixth place (61.5%). Consumer goods and media & entertainment share the seventh position (54.7% each). 

The results show that regulated industries are still driving a lot of the business in the language industry. However, we also see that an increasing number of players of all sizes have branched out into up-and-coming fields such as e-learning, and media and entertainment, and that the IT sector is still going strong. 

When looking at these data it is important to bear in mind that these results represent a numerical count, showing how many players offer a certain service or operate in a certain vertical. They do not reflect the market share by revenue. 

Growth by geographical distribution

To get a better sense of where the biggest growth came from by geographical distribution in 2020, we have compiled a map of the growth rates of the top 100 LSPs, by region, based on country headquarters.

We calculate growth based on revenues expressed in USD, using the annual exchange rate for each day of trading. This means that, for some regions, currency fluctuations skew the growth picture. For example, EUR, GBP and SEK performed better against USD in 2020 than they did in 2019, so as a result, companies reporting in these currencies saw a boost to growth in the equivalent USD. On the flipside, in comparison to 2019, companies reporting in CAD and AUD saw a negative impact from currency fluctuations in 2020.

M&A activity in 2020: The industry reaches maturity and creates new market leaders

In 2020, the industry reached a new level of maturity, with major consolidation at the top. Three companies that were among the top 15 largest LSPs in last year’s ranking (based on 2019 revenues) have effectively vanished from the ranking in 2021 due to mergers and acquisitions (M&A). As a consequence, at the time of publishing, our ranking is already obsolete. If we consider the M&A activity that went into effect after December 31, 2020, the list of top 10 LSPs in March 2021 looks like this:

Adjusted ranking of the top 10 LSPs as of March 2021

While 2019 had already seen a lot of M&A activity, deals predominantly consisted of large players buying small-to-medium-sized companies to either expand their geographic footprint, their service offering, or their presence in new verticals. In 2020, on the other hand, we witnessed much larger deals, motivated by top players fighting over clients and wanting to secure their place in the market. It was the consolidation of the consolidation that saw former rivals joining forces, and created new segment leaders.

New leaders in the language industry

After buying long-time rival SDL for GBP 809 million (USD 1.066 billion), RWS is the new number one on the market. SDL has been one of the household names in the industry. After the acquisition by RWS, the SDL brand will now disappear and all units will be rebranded to RWS. Since the completion of the deal, RWS shareholders now own about 70.5% of the combined company and SDL shareholders the remaining 29.5%. The deal closed on November 3, 2020, after the end of RWS’ financial year 2020 (September 30, 2020), which is why we still consider both companies separately in this year’s ranking based on 2020 revenues.

RWS is the new de facto leader in the industry. The combined 2020 revenues of RWS and SDL currently stand at USD 937.5 million, so we can expect the company to break the billion-dollar barrier in 2021. As it stands, RWS now outperforms former leader TransPerfect by USD 85.1 million in our adjusted ranking. This shift in leadership also comes with a geographic shift, as it is the first time that a company based in the United Kingdom will be leading the industry. 

In continental Europe, Acolad Group is the new leader after buying industry veteran Amplexor. The financial details of the deal were not disclosed. Acolad had already been busy in the M&A field in the previous years and, for example, bought Livewords, the second-largest interpreting provider in the Netherlands, in 2019. Thanks to its aggressive buy-and-build strategy, the company is currently one of the fastest-growing in the industry. Between 2019 and 2020, Acolad Group grew by almost 70%.

In late January 2021, Iyuno Media Group announced its intention to acquire former rival SDI Media. At the time of writing in mid-March 2021, the deal has not yet closed, but once it does, Iyuno will be the new number one in the media localization industry, with a combined revenue of USD 376 million. Already in 2019, Iyuno and former rival BTI Studios merged, which then solidified its position as the number two in the multimedia market. 

What’s interesting to note is that in all three of the acquisitions highlighted above, it was the smaller player that bought the larger one. In last year’s Nimdzi 100, Acolad Group was in position 13 (USD 168.0 million) and Amplexor was ranked 12 (USD 180.1 million), Iyuno Media Group held spot number 10 (USD 185.0 million) and SDI Media was in ninth place (USD 211.0 million), RWS was number five (USD 454.1 million) and SDL was the fourth largest LSP in the world (USD 480.0 million). So all three acquisitions had a David and Goliath flavor.

Beyond M&A: The first spin-off

Aside from mergers and acquisitions, the industry also had a notable spin-off in 2020. Lionbridge sold its AI division — Lionbridge AI — to TELUS International, a digital customer experience company from Canada. The deal went through for approximately USD 935 million (CAD 1.2 billion). The sale was effective December 31, 2020, so in our ranking based on 2020 revenues, the revenue from Lionbridge AI is still included in Lionbridge’s overall figure. In 2021, the AI revenue will need to be deducted, which currently places Lionbridge in fourth place in our adjusted ranking, at USD 546 million. 

The drivers behind the M&A wave

Many factors contribute to the surge in M&A activity. We currently find ourselves in a seller’s market, meaning there are more companies that want to buy than companies that want to sell. The supply of mid-sized companies is dwindling, and so the valuations for professional buyers like private equity firms is going up. 

In 2020, the pandemic acted as an additional trigger. Growth in the language industry might have slowed down in comparison to previous years but the fact that the industry grew during a pandemic that saw the global economy suffer is a clear sign to investors that the language industry is resilient and that investing in it is a smart move. Already, 26 companies in our ranking are backed by private equity funds, and more can be expected.

Megadeals like the ones we witnessed in 2020 will trigger more large deals. Companies cannot afford to stand still in such a dynamic marketplace and, as it is hard for the top players to grow organically, this is driving M&A into a frenzy. In our survey, more than half of respondents (52.2%) expressed an interest in M&A, stating they are either looking for companies to acquire (23.1%), looking to receive offers (14.2%), or both (14.9%). 

Going forward, mid-sized companies will be bought up by the large players. When the middle disappears, small providers will roll up into the mid-sized positions, where they will subsequently become the next acquisition targets for the top LSPs on the market. In addition, current owners of LSPs looking to retire will have a “changing of the guard” effect that will also likely add to the M&A wave.

Despite the ongoing consolidation, it is worth noting that the industry will always remain fragmented. This is because it has a low barrier to entry by nature and new small players constantly enter the market. Thousands of small companies account for more than three-quarters of the industry. 

How buyers view the LSP landscape

What the ranking doesn’t show is that many of the top providers in the industry are not in direct competition with one another. Because the market is so fragmented, there are many clusters of top players for the various sectors within the language services industry. 

While companies from the top ranks are trying to diversify and branch out into other segments, no one, for example, comes near Keywords Studios when it comes to gaming, near Iyuno Media Group when it comes to media localization, or near LanguageLine Solutions in the area of interpreting.

In every segment of the market, there are a handful of LSPs that have reached the level of brand awareness that puts them in a top-of-mind position for buyers. From a buyer’s point of view, the top companies in each segment of the industry are more likely to be bundled and tend to be interrelated in the client's mind. Let’s take a look at who they are, per sector of the industry.

Key trends

The LSP is dead. Long live the LSP!

Yes, the traditional concept of a translation company is dead. However, this bold statement is only partially true. Let us clarify. It is true for the biggest companies in the industry, so the ones that belong in the Nimdzi 100 ranking. Or the ones that aspire to become a big player. But it’s not necessarily true for most of the smaller companies (> USD 10 million in revenue) that are still a big part of the language service industry (78.6% according to our market-sizing exercise). So what do we mean by that?

Moving away from transactional work

We have identified a trend in the top 100 companies that is not new, but it’s now stronger than ever before. Increasingly, the top 100 LSPs are trying to stay away from transactional work and focus on MSA (master service agreement)-based business. In that sense, the LSPs’ ability to upsell and to develop strong account management or customer success programs plays a key role in building and nurturing those lasting relationships with clients. The needs of localization buyers have become more complex and LSPs are pivoting and adapting to meet those requirements by, for example, adding adjacent services to their offering. Consequently, they are becoming “corporate service providers” or rather business partners to help clients expand their international business.

To know that the acronym of LSP is obsolete, we just need to have a look at the biggest players in our ranking. Are TransPerfect, or Lionbridge, or RWS, or Keywords only offering language services to their clients? Definitely not! Language services are just one part of their revenue, but they have been able to pivot and tailor their services to cater to the needs of their clients, and that’s one of the reasons why they’ve been able to thrive. Should we, therefore, exclude them from the LSP ranking? Of course not, that would be too narrow-minded of us. What we need to do is to update our concept of LSP to one that reflects their complexity. We’re talking about strategic partners for global business

This transformation is of course not random and is motivated by the same consolidation trend that we have seen throughout the M&A space. Big companies are looking for ways to simplify the supply chain and, in general, they want to reduce the number of vendors, including LSPs. The key here is to package the services in a way that makes sense for the customers. The multimedia localization industry is a great example of how to identify and understand the needs of clients and add value by offering adjacent services and technology such as digital packaging or cloud recording. Other services that LSPs now offer focus on global content strategy for their clients, and that can include content management, content creation, and copywriting, among other services.

Technology as the biggest ally

Technology is the biggest ally in the move to achieve this transformation from traditional LSP to strategic partner for global business. COVID-19 made it very clear that companies with a solid technical infrastructure were able not only to survive the pandemic but to grow their business. Why? Because they were able to respond quickly to client challenges: scalability, productivity, limited budgets, need to deliver the same services remotely (in the case of interpreting and dubbing), and so on. Examples of companies that succeeded during 2020 thanks to a solid technical infrastructure are the interpreting giant LanguageLine Solutions, with their remote interpreting solution, and ZOO Digital, with their adaptable cloud solutions and workflows tailored to OTT platforms. 

Our thesis is that LSPs only offering language services as well as language technology providers (LTPs) only offering language technology have limited value for more mature clients.

Offering a combination is the way forward. In 2020, we witnessed significant mergers and acquisitions that support this thesis: RWS and SDL, Straker and LingoTek, Awatera and SpeakUS, and Deluxe and Sundog. In previous years, we’ve also seen how Keywords acquired KantanMT and XLOC. Or we can look at how Lilt reinvented themselves, starting as a language technology company and becoming an enhanced-technology LSP. And we will probably see more of these marriages between LSPs and LTPs, as well as more LSPs creating or increasingly investing in their own technology.

AI-enhanced language portals for transactional work

At the same time, we have seen how companies are investing in developing AI-enhanced language portals to simplify and automate workflows for transactional work. So instead of ignoring a big part of the market (remember, around 78%), some companies are investing in creating language portals that offer translations (or even interpreting services) as a commodity, like buying products from Amazon. The key for productivity is to create an automated system where human interaction is not required.

Where do smaller LSPs stand?

So, what does this all mean for small LSPs? Traditional LSPs will still work in local markets or focus on specific verticals and services covering niche needs within the market. There will always be a need for boutique language services. The existence of Deloitte and the other big three hasn’t eradicated the small accounting business working with smaller clients with different needs. But, of course, boutique LSPs will need to highlight their value proposition and show how they contribute to the supply chain. Quality and price are no longer sufficient positioning strategies. 

Data for AI services keeps growing

Following the trend of service diversification, one of the most hyped services for the language service industry in recent years has been language data for AI. Already in the 2020 edition of the Nimdzi 100, we mentioned that large players like TransPerfect, Lionbridge, and Welocalize had identified AI support services, such as data annotation and data labeling, as growth drivers. According to our survey, 27.8% of LSPs are currently offering data and AI related services. This was also a recurrent topic during our interviews with major players, coming from both specialized and mature language data providers and regular LSPs. We have seen how companies such as Summa Linguae Technologies have shifted their focus from language service providers to multilingual data providers. We can expect to see more of these shifts in the near future. 

Companies who have been offering both AI services and localization, report that they increasingly see a convergence of the two, to the point where it is sometimes impossible to define whether a project is an AI or a localization project. We can expect this field of AI localization to expand in the coming years.

That there is money in the AI business is no surprise, but if ever there were any doubt, Lionbridge selling its AI division to TELUS will have eliminated that. That deal closed for almost USD one billion. Despite the sale, Lionbridge is not leaving this lucrative field altogether. The company will continue its AI efforts, only now these will exclusively be focused on language services (namely, on neural machine translation).

Life goes on(line): E-commerce and e-learning are booming

In March 2020, the world went into lockdowns of various degrees. One year later, it sometimes feels like life has stopped. But, really, life rather pivoted to the virtual world (wherever possible). This brought a boom to digital trends, which in turn increased the demand for language services. Two areas that stood out in this regard during our research are e-commerce and e-learning. While these two fields are not directly connected by any means, what they have in common is what the “e” in the name stands for — electronic, that is they exist purely in the virtual realm and have thus seen a huge increase since the start of the pandemic.

Let’s take a closer look.

E-commerce: Record growth

Repeated lockdowns have interrupted the retail industry and forced traditional brick-and-mortar stores into unpredictable closures. However, the same trend has boosted the e-commerce industry beyond even the most ambitious of projections. According to McKinsey, the US e-commerce market experienced 10 years’ growth in only three months in early 2020, and eMarketer estimates that the global e-commerce industry grew by 27.6% to more than four trillion US dollars in 2020. China is still the frontrunner in the e-commerce space and it is expected that, in 2021, China will become the first country in the world that will see more than half of its retail sales happening online. 

The boom in e-commerce comes from two sides. First, there are the established e-commerce platforms like Shopify that experienced record growth in 2020. The current gross merchandise volume (GMV) of the e-commerce giant stands at USD 120 billion, after an impressive 86% growth in GMV. On top of that, as lockdowns continued there was a notable shift in the number of brick-and-mortar stores participating in the online market, which is the second factor that boosted growth in the e-commerce field. 

More e-commerce means more online content, which triggers higher localization demand. As Nimdzi’s Project Underwear study into buying behavior shows, offering a product or service in a consumer’s native language influences their buying decision. It is also worth noting that while e-commerce is commonly referred to as a vertical, it really is a way of selling and in that regard offers endless opportunities for all business segments.

E-learning: Time to upskill

E-learning was already on the rise prior to the pandemic but has since seen a notable uptick. This is for a number of reasons:

  1. With everyone being locked down at home, people are using the time to upskill — either to enter new opportunities now or to be better prepared for the post-pandemic world.
  2. Pandemic or not, the show must go on and business continues. Only now, wherever possible and practical, people are working from home. For corporations across the globe this means that their employees now need to receive any and all training — whether it is for onboarding or upskilling — remotely.
  3. The work-from-home phenomenon comes with new ways of working that require training.
  4. E-learning for marketing and sales: The pandemic changed sales and marketing channels as soon as the traditional ones, i.e. in-person events, were no longer an option. Offering e-learning can be a great way to highlight a company’s expertise in a certain field, which businesses can use as a conversation starter.

As a result of the developments listed above, there has been an explosion of e-learning platforms. For the language industry this means more content, which in turn means more opportunity for growth. The area of subtitling for corporate videos has seen significant increase. The main challenges to address with e-learning localization are low budgets, scalability, and complex, non-standardized workflows and content types. Automatic captions, machine translation, and synthetic voices are some services that might help overcome the challenges alongside the expertise of media service providers. 

Spotlight on industry segments

The language services industry offers many types of services and operates in even more verticals. In this section, we provide a more in-depth overview and analysis of a number of sectors within the industry that stood out in 2020 and that will continue to be the most relevant going into 2021.

Interpreting: Turning a crisis into an opportunity 

The interpreting market has arguably been the sector within the industry that was most heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic — both positively and negatively.

While various types of remote interpreting have long started to make their way into the interpreting market, they were largely seen as a nice idea or a solution in search of a problem. However, once lockdowns hit and in-person events and gatherings were forbidden or restricted, remote interpreting stepped out of the shadows to become the salvation of the interpreting industry. Those who were prepared were able to pivot their business to remote operations without major difficulties, and virtual interpreting technology (VIT) providers saw their business skyrocket. 

Remote simultaneous interpreting is booming

Remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) in particular has seen a significant increase since the onset of the pandemic. This is because conference interpreting was the segment within the interpreting industry that, before March 2020, was predominantly performed onsite. Once the pandemic hit and the initial shock was over, almost the entire demand for conference interpreting pivoted from onsite to virtual, creating a huge spike in business for established RSI providers. This boom did not go unnoticed and soon attracted investors. RSI veteran, KUDO, for example, secured USD 6 million in funding in July 2020. 

Within the remote interpreting space, the biggest opportunity or potential competition comes from outside the language industry. Zoom, by far the most popular video conferencing platform, has added interpreting as a feature. Clients from outside the language industry are more familiar with Zoom and often prefer to stick with what they know. The VIT space has recognized this and most VIT providers can integrate with Zoom. 

Telemedicine as an area for growth

It should come as no surprise that the telemedicine sector presented another area for growth for remote interpreting providers in 2020. Even before the pandemic, this field had started to take off. One example that illustrates the attractiveness of this segment is the acquisition of Stratus Video by healthcare staffing company AMN Healthcare for USD 475 million in February 2020. In the same month, telehealth platform Cloudbreak Health, which comes with its own proprietary remote interpreting platform, Martti, received USD 10 million in funding. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, healthcare providers in all countries affected by the crisis, have been urging patients to call before making an in-person visit to doctors’ offices, clinics, and hospitals. With this increase in over-the-phone consultations comes an increase in over-the-phone interpreting, as people from all language backgrounds need to be supported. Not only phone consultations led to a spike but as the pandemic progressed and lockdowns became more and more stringent, hospitals tried to avoid anyone entering their facilities who did not absolutely need to be there — including interpreters. For the safety of both interpreters and patients, many onsite appointments were replaced with virtual ones. Boostlingo, for example, reported a spike in requests from telehealth vendors, looking for ways to integrate interpreting into their own platforms. Remote interpreting giant LanguageLine Solutions has long been active in the healthcare sector and saw record growth in 2020, with revenues jumping from USD 530 million in 2019 to USD 618 million in 2020. Remote interpreting in the telehealth sector was already growing before March 2020 but the pandemic accelerated this trend significantly and we can expect it to last beyond COVID-19.

Adaptation and co-existence

What does this mean for the future of the interpreting industry? Is remote here to stay? Based on our research, the future will be a mix of adaptation and co-existence. Remote will not replace onsite interpreting, but we can expect that the current exposure to remote interpreting will have a lasting impact. Especially in the corporate sector, it is likely that remote interpreting will continue to see increased demand now that more businesses have tried it and are considering offering work-from-home options to their employees beyond the pandemic. This is just one example of how remote interpreting can expand the overall interpreting market. However, there will always be areas where onsite interpreting will be the preferred mode. For example, when privacy issues need to be considered in the healthcare sector, or with matters of confidentiality in the legal field. To put it simply — remote interpreting will not replace onsite interpreting, it will replace not having any interpreting at all.

Multimedia localization — growing, but not so much

Last year, we highlighted media localization as a booming segment of the industry. That’s not even a trend anymore, it’s a reality. Multimedia content is here to stay, and not only is it staying, it is also growing. According to our data, media localization companies grew by an average of 17.4% in 2020 compared to 2019, even though the pandemic slowed down content production due to lockdown measures. We would be lying or being overly simplistic if we said that this growth was due to more content being generated and more content needing translation. It was not. Or not entirely. The growth is mainly due to M&A activities and the diversification of services in the media localization space.

Media localization companies are shifting from language service providers to media service providers (MSPs). Buyers in this space now require services beyond subtitling and dubbing. They look for partners that are able to meet as many requirements as possible in a single package, so that their workflows and project management efforts are simplified. Traditional studios or LSPs that want to succeed in this landscape struggle to meet all the requirements from digital media companies, especially those from over-the-top (OTT) platforms.

It is expected that production will speed up again during 2021, meaning that the content to be localized will grow exponentially. This is good news for companies providing services in this space, but at the same time it can present a challenge for LSPs who will need to scale up quickly to meet the demand. This has already had an impact on M&A activities, as localization buyers are pushing for consolidation. The biggest deal — Iyuno acquiring SDI Media —  is very recent and has not even closed yet, at the time of writing in March 2021. As Keywords Studios became dominant in the gaming industry, we can expect Iyuno to become the consolidator in the media space.

2020 was also the year of remote recording. Lockdowns made it impossible to record from physical studios, and media localization companies had to figure out how to ensure business continuity. In 2020, innovation for remote solutions was accelerated. We saw how Deluxe launched its remote recording platform OneDub, and Iyuno released its disaster recovery solution iDub. Moreover, the remote recording solutions that were already available, such as ZOODubs, were consolidated even more during this period. This change in operations naturally came with a learning curve and a period of adaptation for all stakeholders, but eventually ensured business continuity.

As we highlighted last year, there’s still a shortage of talent for the media industry. For dubbing, there is still a need for trained script adaptation professionals and artistic directors, as the demand for content will continue to increase. For subtitling, the demand is increasing for several languages. In India, some less mainstream languages, such as Punjabi, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, and Gujarati started to pick up. Finding language professionals who are able to perfectly write in those languages and also have translation and subtitling skills has been a challenge. This scenario is repeated in other regions where media localization is booming as OTT platforms continue to expand their business internationally. MSPs play a key role in acting as vendor managers for the media industry.

Game localization is of course not falling behind and continues to grow. Segment giant Keywords reported an increase of 16.3% in revenue in 2020 compared to the previous year, even though this revenue includes much more than just language services. As the gaming industry keeps growing as a whole (USD 152.1 billion in 2019, USD 159.3 billion in 2020, according to Newzoo), the type of games are also evolving, and Games as Services are now a big part of the industry. This means that games are constantly being updated and more content created to provide a continuous source of entertainment to players. In this area, the industry still needs to find efficient ways to manage the updates and content through continuous localization workflows and centralized content management systems that can also meet the needs of localization. There are new tools trying to fill this gap, including Gridly and Lokalise, but they still need to be adopted both by game developers and localization companies. It remains to be seen whether they can meet all the requirements. 

In 2020, we witnessed more software projects (e)merging here and there in all the areas within multilingual communication. From new additions to the family of remote simultaneous interpreting to the spread of remote dubbing to new achievements in natural language processing (NLP) and machine translation (MT).

All about that data

The NLP and language data space is getting bigger and even more hungry for quality data. To prepare data, curate MT training, evaluate MT engines, and fine-tune the MT processes, human specialists are needed. For them, this work on MT customization may now be quicker — with products like Spotlight by Intento. This is one of the tools from Intento’s MT Studio, the toolkit for complex MT curation with options for data cleaning, training, and evaluating of multiple MT models.

Following the language data trends, Systran announced their Systran data, a multilingual catalog of industry-specific translation models. These models are designed by a community of experts called 'trainers' and are offered in self-service to professional users. In the event that a contributor (e.g. LSP) already has language data collected over time, they are now able to successfully monetize it. TAUS Data Marketplace, released in November 2020, is a platform for both data sellers (translators, data producers, LSPs) and data buyers (MT providers, enterprises, etc.) to exchange datasets. Future marketplace projects trying to follow the same model and replicate a way for the global language and AI industries to trade, clean, cluster, and curate data, will need to pay very close attention to validation of the ownership and quality of the language data being exchanged.

While some LSPs are still hesitant about MT adoption and MTPE compensation methods, other companies (e.g. TranslateMe) offer to combine MT with human validation and use the way people engage with the translation technology as the method of generating and getting paid tokens. 

TMS: More partnerships

The translation management systems (TMS) arena has been bombarded with investments and M&A deals. In January 2021 alone:

  • Across was acquired by Volaris, a Canadian investment group
  • Memsource and majority shareholder The Carlyle Group acquired Phrase
  • Lingotek was acquired by Straker Group

Despite this TMS unification trend, users are still confronted with an abundance of tools to choose from: The Nimdzi Language Technology Atlas features more than 140 TMS solutions. With so many language technology options, this space is becoming more attractive to investors. For instance, in February 2021, XTM International secured a growth equity investment from K1 Investment Management, a firm focused on enterprise SAAS companies.

Geographies

Where the largest LSPs are

Out of 153 medium-to-large-sized companies identified in 2020, 39.9% are headquartered in Europe and 37.3% in North America. Companies from Asia represent 19.6% of the geographical distribution. Australia or New Zealand host 3.3% of the top players. Africa and South America have not yet produced an LSP that could be included in the Nimdzi 100. For the first time this year, a company from the Middle East (BLEND) has made it into the Nimdzi 100.

Compared to 2019, there is a slight decrease in companies headquartered in Europe (44.0% in 2019) and North America (38.7% in 2019). This difference is made up by LSPs based in Asia (14.0% in 2019). 

Where the clients are

We asked survey respondents to indicate the percentage of their revenue derived from customers based in different parts of the world. The results show that in 2020, Europe was the region with the largest client base in the industry, followed by North America and Asia. This is similar to the market distribution we saw in 2019, although the weight shifted slightly. 

In 2020, 48.9% of revenues came from clients based in Europe, down from 54.3% in 2019. This slight decline in the European client base seems to have shifted to North America and Asia. In 2020, North America accounted for 33.9% of the client base, up from 29.9% in 2019, and 14.7% of revenues in 2020 were derived from customers in Asia as compared to 10.6% in 2019. It is possible that travel restrictions due to COVID-19 shifted the focus of LSPs towards clients in their national markets rather than looking over the fence to other countries, which is a trend that stood out from interviews with industry players. Given that the US is the largest market for language services by revenue, this might be one explanation for the slight shift we observed. Another might be increased regulations in Europe, as well as Asia being the global engine of economic growth.

Same as in 2019, South America (1.3%), Australia (1.0%), and Africa (0.2%), are the smallest regions in terms of client base in 2020. 

India: A booming digital economy, new language regulations, and the battle for talent

In the 2020 edition of the Nimdzi 100 we already mentioned India as one of the most promising geographical areas for growth. India’s digital economy in particular is booming. Areas such as OTT services and digital multimedia content production and consumption, video game usage, use of social media via handheld devices, e-learning platforms and courses, and e-commerce all grew throughout 2020, and the potential for language services is far from saturated, as illustrated by the following figures: 

  • 45% of the Indian population uses the internet and there is a potential 55% that can be brought on-board. In absolute numbers this is 762,679,782 potential users of which almost 90% do not speak English.
  • 76.7% of internet users make online purchases.
  • 77.2% of internet users watch TV content via streaming services. 
  • 92.8% of internet users play video games on any device.
  • There has been an annual growth of 21.2% (78,000,000 users) in the usage of social media. 
  • India has the largest advertising audience for Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook Messenger, the second largest advertising audience for LinkedIn and Snapchat and the third largest for Twitter.

In addition, the country’s Union Budget for 2021, announced the launch of the National Language Translation Mission (NLTM), whereby the entire governance-and-policy related knowledge on the internet will be made available in major Indian languages. Such an official mission in favor of local Indian languages on a national level is the first of its kind.

What do these figures mean for the localization and language industry in India?

Missions like NLTM will provide a big boost to regional language initiatives. It will also encourage agencies to translate scientific and technology content, currently available mostly in English, into Indian languages. This will democratize the Indian internet, make it more inclusive and afford accessibility in most Indian languages. 

The initiative will have a positive effect on the Indian language and language technology ecosystem, especially for the language technology companies who built capabilities in Indian writing systems and digitized the fonts. 

For some of the global giants, this was a foreseen step. Tech majors like Microsoft, social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube, OTT platforms like Netflix and Prime, and e-commerce sites like Flipkart and Amazon have all localized into various Indian languages already. Even Alexa provides support in five Indian languages. This opens up localization opportunities for a plethora of content platforms and content types.

Typing in Indian language scripts is still not as easy as typing in English, hence the technology and services around speech-to-text based localization or localized voice services have become the preferred choice. Banks have seen an opportunity here and have deployed multilingual voice bots, like AXAA by Axis bank, to handle customer queries and requests. AXAA supports over 10 Indian languages and over 160 dialects. 

With limited use cases and low adoption of digitized Indian scripts and fonts, there have been suggestions to separate language from script, increase adoption of transliteration of Indian languages as well as promote the use of localized voice over written language. It is with this workaround that 2020 also saw an increase in investments in companies offering voice-based services in local languages, such as Vernacular.ai, as well as the acquisition of a language technology company like Webdunia by RWS. 

As global companies enter Indian markets and need localization services, industry players are incentivized to participate in the Indian localization ecosystem. The main challenge LSPs face in India is talent acquisition and low prices. As LSPs flock towards India, we expect a battle for the best talent in the local market. 

Africa: Many languages but few language services

While India is the market that everyone is talking about, Africa is the market that nobody is talking about. There is a notable lack of African LSPs in our rankings and even when we look at the client base of the top players in the industry, only 0.2% of revenue comes from clients in Africa.

It is estimated that there are between 1500 and 2000 languages spoken on the African continent. Yet, there are few language services to be found there. This is largely due to a few top challenges:

  • A lack of investment: Translation companies in African countries often don’t have the financial muscle of those based in Europe, North America, or Asia. This hampers their ability to scale up their service offerings and make the desired impact.
  • A lack of talent: There is a notable lack of qualified, professional linguists. This is because the majority of language professionals are teaching and do not consider translation a viable career. Adding to this is the fact that training courses can be expensive and studying a language can be seen as extravagant, as career opportunities afterward are uncertain.
  • A lack of structure and professionalization: Professional associations play a huge role in the advancement of the professionalization of any service industry. Translator and interpreter associations in the African market appear to be less active and organized. That being said, in 2019, a number of translators got together to organize the first Africa International Translation Conference, held in Nairobi, Kenya, which paved the way to igniting the interest of indigenous language translators and to change the face of the translation industry in Africa. The second edition of the Africa International Translation Conference was held in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2020 to sustain the feat of a growing language industry in Africa.

Despite all the challenges listed above, language services do, of course, exist in Africa. Right now, the majority of LSPs on the African market operate in the USD 1 million bracket and mostly focus on the colonial languages, i.e. English and French, as well as German, Spanish, and Russian. However, localization needs for local languages do exist, especially for Swahili, Afrikaans, Zulu, Amharic, Xhosa, Malagasy, Ewe, Twi, Hausa, and Tigrinya, as well as Arabic in North Africa. 

And there is room for growth. Africa is home to nearly one billion people, and the digital economy on the continent is booming. Data from a Nimdzi survey for consumers in Africa revealed that more than half of respondents in North Africa, and close to 40% of respondents in Sub-Saharan Africa, reported that the lack of culturally and linguistically relevant content was one of the most significant reasons why mobile users chose not to access the Internet.

In addition, China has been Africa’s largest trading partner and a formidable investor in African infrastructure for about 20 years now. This investment has come with an increased presence of Chinese businesses on the African market, which in turn is creating an ever increasing need for language services in Mandarin on the African continent.

The effect of COVID-19 on the language services industry

When we finished writing the 2020 edition of the Nimdzi 100 in late February 2020, COVID-19 had not yet been declared a pandemic, but we already noted the fact that if it became a pandemic, the language industry would be impacted in the same way as the industries it serves — both negatively and positively.

In this year’s edition of the Nimdzi 100, we are dedicating an entire section to the effect of COVID-19 on the language services industry. While we might all be sick of talking about it at this stage, the pandemic is still here and it is still having an impact on the market. In fact, almost everything in our analysis has been impacted by the pandemic. Still, there are a few overall takeaways worth highlighting. 

A few stats about the impact of the pandemic

In this year’s survey, close to 75% of respondents reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on their business. 

Asked to specify, our data show that a shift to remote work (76.5%) was the most common effect of the pandemic. This is followed by a decrease or loss of existing business (60.8%) and suspension or termination of work from clients (33.3%). On a more positive note, respondents also saw an increase of existing business (28.4%) and a decrease in expenses (27.5%). When it comes to layoffs due to reduced volumes (18.6%) versus onboarding new staff to handle increased volumes (16.7%) the reported figures only vary slightly.

Impact of the pandemic on the language industry

Impact on verticals and services

The pandemic is affecting segments within the industry in different ways. In the healthcare and life sciences sector for example, we saw a huge increase for anything related to COVID-19, but a significant decrease for anything non-essential, such as elective surgeries, physical therapy, and routine consultations. In the legal sector, it was mostly business as usual, although sub-segments were affected in different ways, e.g. courts were closed and law firms were switching to video remote interpreting. Immigration has effectively come to a halt, due to the imposed travel bans. In the government sector, demand is down by about 50%, as governments are only focusing on essential services and COVID-19 related communication. 

It, of course, comes as no surprise that onsite interpreting has been hit hard and has almost completely gone away. LSPs whose revenues are driven by onsite interpreting reported a significant drop in business of around 70% or higher, and one medium-sized provider from the United States reported it had to lay off 40% of its staff. Conference interpreting has been obliterated. In turn, we’re seeing an increase for remote solutions, especially remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI), which is in high demand right now.

COVID-19: The big accelerator

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has acted as an accelerator. It has intensified trends and widened the gap between those who already had remote solutions and digital offerings in place and those who did not. This is true across the globe and not just in the area of language services. As mentioned before, the US e-commerce market, for example, had 10 years worth of growth in only three months as a result of brick-and-mortar retail stores shutting down due to imposed lockdowns. 

In the language industry, companies who already had remote solutions in place thrived, whereas those who ran entirely onsite-focused operations saw an accelerated downturn. Especially for the latter group, but also for the majority of players interviewed, the pandemic also became a catalyst for internal projects that had been put on the back burner. Many LSPs had, for example, planned to improve their digital presence or offer various remote solutions to their clients and internal staff for a long time but never acted on these plans. They were seen as a nice-to-have, rather than something essential. However, once the pandemic hit, these projects suddenly needed to be prioritized in order to keep businesses afloat.

Technology as the big differentiator

A general trend that stood out is that those who had the right technology in place won the race. They shot ahead of everyone else and increased their growth by being able to cash in on remote trends, like remote interpreting in the telehealth field or remote dubbing in media localization. Those who weren’t set up properly were hastily playing catch up, for example by launching new RSI platforms, finally increasing their digital presence, or increasing automation.

Increased profitability

Revenue is vanity, profit is sanity. 65% of the top 100 LSPs in our ranking recorded various degrees of growth, and our data show that the industry as a whole grew as well. That being said, growth has slowed down across the industry, and for some LSPs, revenues also decreased or remained flat. But there is more to it than meets the eye. While revenues might have decreased, profitability went up. 45.5% of survey respondents reported that their profitability increased in 2020, which is also echoed by the top players interviewed for the Nimdzi 100. 35.6% of companies surveyed reported that their profitability stayed level with the previous year and only 18.9% noted a decrease in profitability.

This increase in profitability comes as no surprise when the side effects of the lockdowns are considered, i.e. no or very little travel, reduced need for office space, and no in-person events. All of these byproducts of the pandemic translated into a decrease in expenses which in turn increased profitability.

Work from home is here to stay

While the language industry had already been remote-friendly prior to March 2020, the pandemic took it to a new level. More or less overnight (or over the weekend), players of all sizes had to move their entire operations and staff online. The vast majority of companies interviewed pulled this off without major difficulty. 

The new work-from-home situation changed the way we work, and we can expect it to have a lasting impact on the industry. Most companies interviewed reported that they are considering offering work-from-home options to their employees beyond the pandemic in a hybrid model. 

Survival strategies and growth opportunities

Now that we know how businesses were impacted by the pandemic, it is time to take a closer look at the strategies LSPs employed to handle this new challenge.

Customer focus

During the early stages of the pandemic, helping customers move their business online became the number one task for companies of all sizes. Any client that didn’t already have a digital presence needed one now — and fast. On the translation side of the industry, this led to an increasing demand for website localization. On the interpreting side, corporate businesses and government entities alike were reaching out, looking for remote interpreting solutions.

Customer service is always important in any service industry, but especially in uncertain, challenging times. LSPs can use such a situation to stand out by providing extra strong customer service. Many LSPs in the industry realized this and responded, for example, with 24/7 availability, quicker turnaround times, and putting in extra hours to educate and train their customers on remote solutions. 

And as client industries adapted to a new way of working, so did the language industry.

Investment in marketing and sales

More than ever, LSPs ramped up their sales and (even more so) their marketing efforts after March 2020. As mentioned before, the pandemic changed the nature of sales channels. Due to lockdowns, and travel and meeting restrictions, traditional sales channels like conferences and face-to-face meetings were not available. LSPs had to come up with new ideas, and invest into new sales methods. Many ran more ads, campaigns, and reach out initiatives. 

A number of companies interviewed for the Nimdzi 100 reported that they expanded their sales teams as part of their strategy to avoid losses. In the same vein, as marketing — especially digital marketing — became crucial, many companies expanded their marketing teams significantly after March 2020.

Reshuffling and reinvesting

The pandemic forced many to take a closer look at their internal structures. For some LSPs interviewed for the Nimdzi 100 it became all about managing cash flow, whereas others focused heavily on investing in technology and increasing their digital presence. 

As highlighted above, the pandemic affected different segments of the industry in different ways. Many LSPs reacted to this challenge by reshuffling internal resources. For example by reassigning linguists and project managers from their travel and hospitality division — which was down — to their life sciences division — which was booming. In addition, companies were assessing their client portfolios. Once the pandemic hit, it became very apparent that LSPs with a diverse client base performed much better than those who derive most of their revenue from one or two large clients in a certain vertical. 

Where do we go from here?

As it stands, in March 2021 we are still in a worldwide pandemic and lockdown measures of varying degrees continue in countries across the globe. Nobody can say for sure how long this situation is going to last. What we do know is that, once restrictions are lifted, we can expect an explosion of content. Once production can resume in the media space, the market will be flooded with new movies and TV shows, which will translate into a massive spike for media localization down the line. The travel and hospitality business plummeted during the pandemic but it is reasonable to assume that once people are allowed to travel again, this segment of the industry will experience a huge boost. In addition, once 5G becomes widely implemented, it will make content available exponentially faster and at scale. This means that more content will be created, which in turn will trigger more localization demand in various segments of the industry.

While not all trends and workarounds from the pandemic will remain in place, we can expect some trends and innovations to have a lasting impact on the industry. Remote dubbing and remote interpreting, for example, experienced a significant boost in the last year as they came to the rescue of two otherwise heavily impacted segments of the market. 

They say to never waste a good crisis. Our analysis shows that the language industry certainly did no such thing. This is why we put our growth estimates back on track and predict that the industry will reach USD 73.6 billion by 2025.

Sarah Hickey Chief Researcher Nimdzi Insights

This report has been researched and co-written by Nimdzi's VP of Research, Sarah Hickey. If you wish to learn more about the state of the language industry today, reach out to Sarah at [email protected].

This report has been researched and co-written by Nimdzi's Lead Media Localization Researcher, Belén Agulló García. If you wish to learn more about the state of the language industry today, reach out to Belén at [email protected].

Interested in signing up for next year's survey?

Stay up to date as Nimdzi publishes new insights.
We will keep you posted as each new report is published so that you are sure not to miss anything.

Related posts

  • Sign Up
Lost your password? Please enter your username or email address. You will receive a link to create a new password via email.